Three years ago, I wrote about a heroic educator in upstate New York who wrote bluntly about the current obsession with testing, ranking all students based on their test scores. Her name is Teresa Thayer Snyder. I called her a hero educator. She was at that time the superintendent of Voorheesville, New York, a small and high-performing district. She spoke out against the rigging of test scores on the new Common Core tests, which caused scores across the state to collapse. Because of her courage and integrity, I named her to the blog’s honor roll.
Now Superintendent Snyder is leading another district, Green Island Union Free District, and she has spoken out again about the stupidity of annual standardized testing, which tells us nothing that we don’t already know.
NY State Tests and The Three Bears
I am certain every reader remembers the story of Goldilocks breaking and entering into the cottage of The Three Bears. After wreaking havoc on their household, seeking a chair, a bed, and a bowl of porridge that was “just right” she dozed off in baby bear’s bed until she was awakened by the three bears’ return, at which time she ran off into the forest and was never seen by the bears again.
Such it is with New York State testing for children in grades 3 through 8. In the desperate attempt to find a test that is “just right” the State (and other States) has experimented for the past several years. Sadly, in the pursuit of “just right,” thousands of children have been subjected to assessments that were anything but. The results are in again, and while the powers that be are claiming gains in proficiency, analysts are suggesting that the gains are the result of lowering the bar that signifies achievement. Whatever—the point that should not be missed is that the raising or the lowering of the bar is entirely unrelated to the experience of children in the tested grades.
The test results again show that children in wealthy schools are more proficient than children in poverty; that children in regular education are more proficient than children who are differently abled; that children whose first language is the same as the test writers are more proficient than children for whom that language is a new language. These outcomes are so stable over time that one wonders why we need an expensive and extensive testing program to reveal these results. Indeed, standardized tests have been telling this story since their inception over a century ago.
What standardized tests have also been telling us for all these years is that there is very little correlation, if any, between outcomes on these tests and success in life. Recently, I was with a group of young women, all 30-something young adults. In the course of the conversation, standardized testing came up (I swear it was not I who brought it up!!). A litany of anxiety poured forth. Person after person articulated how much they hated those days of testing they had experienced in their k-12 education. One after another made statements such as “they made me feel stupid;” “I was always so disappointed as I worked so hard.” I finally said, in a firm tone, cease and desist. Sitting with me was a doctor of pharmacy, a speech pathologist, a director of human resources, a lawyer, a social worker—all women who had achieved remarkably well despite the profiling that they felt they were subjected to while taking those assessments years before. Imagine, if these successful adults felt inadequate because of those tests, imagine how youngsters who truly struggled on such assessments felt. My own daughter, a PhD who is professionally published, barely passed the New York State writing assessment that used to be on the testing menu when she was in fifth grade. She did poorly because she doesn’t like to elaborate much when she writes. Curiously, in her current field, such succinctness is valued!
A test of any sort is only a minimalist measure of what it purports to measure. I recently had a conversation with a data analyst who had beautiful color coded item analyses of the sample of recently released NYS test questions. One of the trends that was alarming to him was that the scores on “higher level questions” reduced with each grade in school. He suggested that this indicated that children were not grappling with higher level items on the test and this was a deficiency. I asked him how he could be so certain that, as children matured, they were not using higher level thinking skills. Maybe they were—evaluating their likelihood of success or even the quality of the test items, and rejecting them. Maybe, as children valued the assessment less, they were actively resisting engagement—resistance requires higher level thinking.
The significant “opt out” movement in New York—and other States– is growing as parents also value these tests less and less. What is astonishing to me is that opting out of tests is a recent phenomenon—one which deserves the attention of the powers that be. Remember, students have been subjected to tests for a good many years, and over that time, there has never been the level of resistance that we now see. Instead of denigrating the resistance or seeking to “punish” the schools where participation is down because of parental decisions, maybe it is time to listen to that resistance. Why, in a state where Regents testing has been a gold standard for years, why is there such disaffiliation with this testing mechanism in grades 3-8? Perhaps it is because the resistance recognizes the lack of value in the assessment regimen. Perhaps the outcomes matter little in the life of a child and are not worth the testing experience that their parents deem unnecessary.
I am 66 years old. I have taken so many standardized tests over the course of my life that I cannot begin to count them. I can tell you this—what I remember about school is not the results I obtained on any test I ever took—it was each and every teacher. I remember books they introduced me to, and ways of thinking that challenged me. I remember struggling with penmanship (I still do) and I remember being urged to participate in daunting speech contests, and I remember being prodded to write and to re-write—But what I most remember is the teachers and I cannot repeat that enough.
So, as we approach the beginning of the next school year, and while the State in which we work continues to search for the “just right” assessments, I urge my colleagues in the field to never lose sight of the things that matter in the classroom. It is not the test that makes a difference in a child’s life—it is you. May all of the children who cross your classroom thresholds find themselves in the company of someone who believes in them, regardless of the chair, the bed, or the bowl of porridge. A year of promise awaits!